Jon Salmanson spent his evenings last week riding NJ Transit’s 4:40 p.m. train from Hoboken to Suffern, N.Y. asking his fellow riders to sign his petition.
“They’re thinking about eliminating this train,” Salmonson told commuters. The petition demands that NJ Transit – facing a $300 million budget deficit for FY2011 – keep the 4:40 p.m. Main/Bergen train on track.
The elimination of the 4:40 is just one of many cost saving measures NJ Transit is weighing, as they also plan to increase some fares by more than 25 percent. At least 32 of the system’s 725 commuter trains will be eliminated, including at least two trains on each of the system’s 11 rail lines.
Under the proposed fare increases announced two weeks ago by NJ Transit Executive Director James Weinstein, one-zone bus fares could increase from the current $1.35 to $1.75. Two-zone fares will rise from $2.15 to $2.70. There will likely be sharp hikes in monthly bus passes, and there could be an increase in discounted fares for the elderly and disabled.
Light rail fares will increase from $1.90 each way to $2.40.
Most of these changes would go into effect on May 1 and are expected to generate more than $140 million in revenue.
“I don’t know what else people are supposed to do away with to afford to go to work.” – Raj Dessai
The transit agency has already eliminated 200 jobs through attrition since 2008 and another 200 layoffs are planned for this year. NJ Transit has also implemented salary freezes and furloughs for its employees.
Making tough choices
Tameka Smith-Hawkins, who lives in Jersey City and works at UPS in Secaucus, said if fares go up she may “catch a carpool” rather than take the No. 2 bus from Journal Square to her job on County Avenue.
“My sister work out this way,” Smith-Hawkins said Wednesday. “We got different schedules, but she drives and I may have to ride with her sometimes to save some money.”
She said she currently spends $65 a month on a two-zone bus pass. Under the proposed fare increases that same pass would go up to $82, an increase Smith-Hawkins said she can’t afford.
“Everything going up,” she said. “My rent, the gas, electric, now the buses. My paycheck’s just getting smaller. I’m not keeping up.”
Another UPS employee on the No. 2, Sheila Ford, said, “Me and my boyfriend was supposed to move in together. He wants me to go live with him out in Union County, but I don’t think I’d have money for that commute.”
In a sign of the times, Ford said there were a number of employee thefts at her cousin’s job recently.
“They didn’t take cell phones, electronics, none of that. They took cash – and bus cards…I don’t want to become one of those desperate people.”
Public hearing in Secaucus
Raj Dessai of Secaucus isn’t one of those desperate people, but he is frustrated.
“You know, everything is getting more expensive,” he said Tuesday while walking through the Frank R. Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus on his way home. “And every time something goes up, someone always says to me, ‘Well, just go out less,’ or, ‘Go to the movies less often,’ or, ‘Don’t spend your money at Starbucks.’ But I know so many people who have stopped doing those things already. So I don’t know what else people are supposed to do away with to afford to go to work.”
On March 26, NJ Transit will hold a public hearing on the proposed service cuts and fare hikes at the Lautenberg station from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. This public hearing is one of several the transportation agency is holding throughout the state this month.
“I’ve been through this process twice before,” said Stessel. “And I can tell you that there’s always been something that wasn’t considered in the original proposal that came to light as a result of the public hearing process and was ultimately incorporated into the final plan. The financial realities are significant. And there will be some people who will come to the public hearing who will say, ‘I don’t want to see a fare increase.’ The reality is a fare increase is going to be necessary. However, when it comes to the specifics of the plan, nothing has been decided definitively. So, we encourage customers and the public to participate in the process and bring their ideas. Maybe there are suggestions that customers have that we haven’t thought of, or maybe there are impacts that customers want to bring to our attention that we hadn’t fully considered.”
‘Every little bit counts’
This may give riders some hope, but many seem resigned for the worst.
One Hoboken mother, who did not want to give her name, rode the 126 bus down Washington Street Wednesday, noting, “Before I had my daughter, I used to ride my bike a lot for errands and stuff like that. I’ve been a little nervous about putting her on my bike. But this spring I think I’m going to try it, to save money on bus fares.”
Her husband, she said, was out of work for a while. Although he has found another position, his wife said the family still isn’t back on its feet financially.
“Every little bit counts,” she said, adding that her husband, who works in New York City, will have to dig deeper for the two-zone bus pass he buys to get to and from his job.
“This summer, it should be easier to save money on transportation,” she said. “Not sure what we’ll do when it gets really cold again. Pay it, I guess. But I’m not sure how some people are going to do it.”
Meanwhile, nearly every passenger on the packed 4:40 train from Hoboken to Suffern signed Salmanson’s petition Tuesday. Those who didn’t said they had signed the day before.
“I already have a fairly long commute as it is. So adding another 25 or 30 minutes to my ride home each night would really have an impact,” said Geoff Stitt, who works in midtown Manhattan. To get home, he takes a New York City subway to the 33rd St. PATH, then catches the Main/Bergen train in Hoboken every evening.
Stitt and his wife own one car that they share. He said he often drove to work until he and his wife had a set of twins last year. Now she uses the car to shuttle the infants and he hikes to work on mass transit.
“I know times are tough,” Stitt said, “but it’s really frustrating.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.